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Forecasters warned of poor weather before controversial prescribed burn

Aerial view of Hermits Peak Fire burning in the Pecos Wilderness on the Santa Fe National Forest.
Photo courtesy of S. Matt Counts.
USFS via Flickr
Aerial view of Hermits Peak Fire burning in the Pecos Wilderness on the Santa Fe National Forest.

A controversial prescribed burn, which would eventually become the Hermits Peak Fire, has left Northern New Mexicans and officials wondering why it ever happened in the first place.

The U.S. Forest Service, which lit the blaze, has yet to release all the information about the conditions under which the burn took place––citing a pending review.

Source New Mexico’s Patrick Lohmann has been reporting on the circumstances around the Forest Service’s timing for the burn and his efforts to get public documents explaining why the decision took place. KUNM’s Bryce Dix sat down with Lohmann, who found that before the ignition, weather officials warned U.S. forestry staff of poor burning conditions.

PATRICK LOHMANN: On April 6th of this year, a crew with the Santa Fe National Forest decided that conditions were appropriate to ignite what they expected to be a 1200-acre prescribed burn in Las Dispensas which is an area about 12 miles south of Mora. As far as we know, they lit this fire and then what they said happened were "unpredicted, erratic winds" that made it spot beyond the containment area. It became what is known now as the Hermits Peak Fire. And then it was 91% contained by the time it ended up merging with another fire that formed nearby called the Calf Canyon Fire.

KUNM: You actually went back in time and found these "spot forecasts" that fire officials use for prescribed burns. What do they say and what do they not say about weather conditions?

LOHMANN: In advance of any prescribed burn, it's common practice for a hotshot crew to seek spot forecasts from the weather service that are designed precisely to inform a decision about whether it's safe to light a prescribed burn. So they'll tell you things like humidity, potential wind speed, weather conditions, and also something called the ventilation rate, which kind of speaks to how easy it will be to get smoke out of the area, to not affect people in the immediate area of the fire. Basically anything that the meteorologists can determine that would be helpful to a burn boss. That's what these "spot forecasts" do.

What they don't tell us though, are some of the other important considerations that go into a prescribed burn, like how much moisture there is in the trees and the logs and things like that the fuel moistures, they call it. Some of the topographical or landscape details that would be important to determining whether it's going to be safe to light a fire. Also just any of the plans for the burn and the personnel who would be required. You know, what the objectives are. Things like that. So, we really only have this meteorological slice of data that is one of several factors that go into lighting a burn.

KUNM: According to your reporting, fire officials have not given that other information. So why is the U.S. Forest Service not providing those documents yet?

LOHMANN: Right. So all of the things that I just mentioned that aren't in the spot forecast typically get brought into a thing called a "prescribed burn plan." And it has to be signed off on by a burn boss and compiled with a lot of different people before a burn can occur.

But the Forest Service has so far declined to provide this document, which I believe is a public document, it's often circulated in advance of a burn like this because they are doing a "review" of the conditions and the planning that went into these prescribed burns. So, they said it would be inappropriate and premature to release this document to me.

I really disagree with that. I think there's plenty of people out there who have a lot of questions about what went into this burn. There's a lot of rumors flying around. And maybe it would be helpful to people to know exactly what the conditions were.

The Forest Service has also said that when they decided to light this burn that all the conditions were within the prescribed burn parameters. But, they have declined to say what those parameters are. So, it'd be good just to know, as we're thinking about prescribed burning in the southwest, what are the rules? What are the standards? What is the maximum wind speed?

I have shown, you know, an expert in the meantime, the forecasts that we were able to pull and he said that there are a lot of factors that go into a burn, but based on what he saw, maybe a burn boss should have reconsidered.

KUNM: You watched Tuesday's press conference on the wildfire updates. New Mexico's governor said she was angry. What's that all about?

LOHMANN: Well, yeah, she has previously called on the federal government to rethink their rules around prescribed burns, specifically in the windy season in the southwest. Because it can be so erratic, so unpredictable, it seems like potentially they could have anticipated that this burn would have gotten out of control.

She shares New Mexican's anger, is what she said. She did call it an "earnest mistake." That said, she expects there to be a large amount of federal liability when finally the smoke settles here.

She can only control what the state does. But she said that she has kind of gotten assurances from federal partners and other entities that there will be no more prescribed burns in New Mexico, at least while fires are raging here. I don't think it's been determined what any future prescribed burn policy will be. I think that that's going to be a conversation that will have to happen in the coming weeks and months.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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